Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for January 2012

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

The Wrap Up

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Finishing off the last week of training. It’s getting a little bit crazy around 2RCR because we’re now at the point where in addition to trying to meet all of our training requirements we are also trying to complete a lot of last minute administrative requirements. All those things covered in the DAG now have to get sorted out for the last time, and we’re also coming to grips with a lot of new things that have fallen out of the woodwork. For some of the contingents it’s made more complicated by the arrival of a whole lot more Reservists when we came back from Christmas leave. They have to be pushed through all the processes a lot faster than normal because of the shortened timeline. We’ve got only a couple of these guys, so it’s not so bad. That said, our camp clerk is away on course now and so I’m doing a lot of the work catching up on the paperwork – or at least getting people to do it. One of the specific things is a form we need completed for everyone which has a complicated, specific requirement, and to make it extra complicated, it is a Protected document, meaning it can’t be transmitted by email without encryption. So, I collected these all on a memory stick, and reviewed them. No good. Most of the troops hadn’t read the instructions on how to complete the last part, so I had to kick them back out to be redone.

While I’ve got all this to do, I have my own training to take care of. I’ve knocked off my first aid training, as I mentioned, and went on to Personnel Recovery, which I didn’t get to see all of because of the Unit Ethics Coordinator Course I started today. Go figure, in response to how the first serial of the PR course went it was condensed from two days into one. The UEC course is actually somewhat interesting, in no small part because I did a little bit of coursework on it in university, and one of the officers who profoundly influenced my career studied it more in detail. That would be LCol Ross Cossar, currently the Commanding Officer of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. Then-Major Cossar was published in the Canadian Army Journal in Fall 2008, with an article worth reading entitled Unethical Leadership And Its Relationship To Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have an interest in military psychology I strongly recommend reading this. Further, it cites some excellent sources, including the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, specifically his books On Killing and On Combat, both of which are widely viewed as required reading for those in uniform.

Grappling with the impact of ethics on military service has had a profound effect on the Canadian Army. Most Canadians will be familiar with the Somalia Affair, the torture and murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment during a deployment in that troubled country in 1993. While that event itself was horrible, it exposed a much more deep and troubling problem in the Canadian Forces, pervasive leadership flaws which directly impact our effectiveness as an organization. It was far from the only such incident, and they’re of course not confined to Canada, but it was probably the first, most profound such incident. It was the Somalia Affair that helped drive the interest in ethics that led me to sit in the classroom in which I found myself today.

Militaries have a unusual role in society. We are charged with the responsibility to defend the national interest, including with the right to use violence to do so. As such, you might expect that we have a specific contract with the nation with respect to that responsibility. For example, in Canada and any other democratic society, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, with an emphasis on separation of the two. Canadian Forces members are barred from standing in elections or holding public office while serving (there are apparently some exceptions, but they’re rare), or from engaging in political activities where they may be seen as speaking for the CF. We are expected to hold ourselves to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than the average member of the public because of the role we have.

What happens when the opposite happens? When militaries fail to meet that standard? The repercussions are severe. In fact, in history, the cost of such developments can be mission failure. The Vietnam War wasn’t a military defeat by the North Vietnamese in the sense that their firepower and technology allowed them to defeat the US and their South Vietnamese allies (by the way, if you want to read an amazing account of that, I’d suggest Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval). Neither was the 40th Army driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen because of their strategic or tactical acumen. Rather, in both cases, the national will to keep spending blood and treasure there was destroyed. Media – social media, the internet, and the conventional media – can make that process very rapid indeed. Witness reactions to the video of Marines urinating on corpses. Or the Haditha Incident, where photos came out that made clear that what had actually happened (the murder of innocent bystanders, basically) had been covered up. We risk that same problem any time we deploy. The fact that everyone has camera phones these days, that things can be spread via the internet rapidly, underscores the idea that the whole world is watching all the time.

In most cases, the right thing to do is fairly simple. It’s obvious. There’s no debate or discussion. Sometimes, however, we face choices where there isn’t an obvious palatable option, and the role of ethical training is to help soldiers understand how to apply the ethos that we have developed – and to know where to go for help should they be unable to resolve a dilemma. Not that we’ll always have all the answers, but it’s a good start. And we’re also realizing and understanding that if mistakes do indeed happen, that it’s better to be transparent and address them head on rather than hoping they go away. That applies as well to the military as it does to any industry or to anyone’s personal life. Think about it: as a child, was it ultimately better to hide or lie about what you might have done, or to work to accept responsibility? It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

The course focus, though, is on how to convey these messages to our soldiers, to get them to understand and buy into the Army Ethics Program, to be able to lead them through good discussions about issues and cases that allow them to understand and apply the values we want them to embrace. How to be a better facilitator, as it were. I think it’s a great skill to build on – it’ll help me as an advisor, it’ll help me in my civilian career, it’ll be incredibly valuable. And part of the perk of doing what I do is that I get all this training for free. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about Reservists, but a fact to which more and more are starting to become attuned.

This is only the start of a bit of waxing poetic I think I might do – but I think it’s as important as just recounting what I’m actually doing. As always, let me know what you think.

Written by Nick

January 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Focusing In On The End State

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We’re getting toward the home stretch for sure. Combat first aid wound up well – a good, thorough, and frankly relevant and intense course was probably the best training I’ve seen so far here. Interestingly enough, one of the instructors was a young NCO I trained on his PLQ (primary leadership qualification) course a few years ago and had back the following year as an instructor. He’s doing alright for himself after leaving the Primary Reserve to join the Regular Force.

The course is taught over two days, the first day being mainly theory – the basics of paramedicine, essentially. It’s a crash course in anatomy and trauma management, essentially. It takes what you learn in Standard First Aid courses and rearranges the priorities to make dealing with trauma the primary emphasis, with the equipment that we carry. That equipment is pretty good and being constantly improved upon, but at the end of the day, like any tools, its effectiveness depends solely upon the skill of the users. We therefore got introduced to it all, and put into situations that were realistic enough to get us thinking.  With the limited time and huge audience we didn’t get the intense casualty simulation that often comes with the training, but when you’ve got people taking the material seriously, it’s going to give you the desired effect.

The only thing we cannot simulate is your own reactions to seeing first-hand the impacts of attacks. There’s a combat psychology aspect to this that we haven’t covered intensely in this workup but most people at least in the Army have either been formally introduced to in some aspect of training, or have learned about from their own study of our art. The key to dealing with this revolves around an expanded version the Cooper Colour Code – which was developed by a USMC Marine Colonel, Jeff Cooper, who is an expert on firearms training. The key is to keep yourself “out of the black” – a situation where the natural reaction to combat stress renders you unable to effectively perform anything. The great concern is that in the wake of an incident, those people who need to react and start rendering aid will be in Condition Black – heart racing, brain unable to process information properly, fine motor skills effective. We train on drills so that what you have to do is no longer a conscious thought process, but simple reactions.

Training done right will push you into the red, at which point your heart is racing, your breathing is laboured, you start to get tunnel vision on your objective, and your brain is struggling to process the information around you that you need to remain situationally aware. We train to understand this physiological reactions and to manage them. Studying this has led us to change the way we teach people to use their weapons, to teach them breathing techniques that will aid them, and so on. We don’t do that perfectly yet… and that’s a big, big pet peeve of mine, but I’m not doing this to rant about things I want to see changed. I know we’re getting there. But that’s a discussion for another time, and probably for another forum.

Today we’re working on cultural awareness training, which has been somewhat interesting, but at the same time for me it’s kind of boring, because I’ve read extensively on Afghan history and culture, and while I’m getting some insights from our advisors, the rest is kind of slow. I’ve got another day of that tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be better.

Tonight, however, was especially interesting. We got a visit from the Commander of Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command (CEFCOM), who had a lot to tell us about his insights into the mission we’re embarking on. It wasn’t a lot of blowing smoke up people’s arses. It was a realistic assessment of what we’re going to do, and that to me is good, because having a realistic context in which to work means that we’re going to have realistic objectives. Setting up to train Afghanistan’s security forces – or rather – to enable them to train and sustain themselves will make a difference there, and is what we haven’t done an effective job of for the last ten years. It seems like the overarching concept isn’t an unrealistic view.

We will face a lot of challenges. Afghans in the age bracket that the ANSF recruits from have a literacy rate of 14%. That means 86% of them are unable to read or write. These are things we take for granted in a country like Canada, but a country which has been devoid of an effective education system creates that sort of problem. Corruption is endemic, of course, and we will never eliminate it, to suppose we can is folly, so instead, we just have to try to work around it to focus on effectiveness. We have to hope that political will to support the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stays intact. The “green-on-blue” incident in which 4 French trainers were killed and 15 wounded the other day shook the French resolve. Comd CEFCOM put it best – the insurgency needs to work to break the bonds of trust that make ISAF work – between ISAF armies and their ANSF counterparts, between the Afghan civilization population and their police and army, and if that breaks the link between us, the deployed soldiers and the people at home then it is far easier to push us to give in.

I guess, then, in some way, I’m going to play a direct role in all aspects of that. My job is to help the ANA training system work better, by enabling them to do for themselves, rather than us doing for them. And more importantly, I’m going to tell you the story – the story of one contributor, but part of a broader Canadian story. The fact is, we’re not going to have the kind of media attention that operations in Kandahar ever did. When you really think about it, actually, the fact that Afghanistan isn’t splashed all over front page news right now is an indicator that something is going right, but it’s also creating a risk that the public won’t realize we are there. I want to counter that – I want people to know – to remember – that even though the intense fighting in Kandahar is over, even though hopefully we’re not going to see so many corteges traveling the Highway of Heroes, there are still 1000 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan working to make sure that that country can stand on its own and that we won’t have to worry about the costs of a failed state. We’ve paid it for 10 years.

I hope it’ll be interesting. It’s getting close to the next chapter – to “go time”.

Deeper Thoughts On Training

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First aid training is done. Well, Standard First Aid, anyhow, Combat First Aid starts tomorrow. It’s going to be a relatively relaxed course I think though, being that it’s the weekend, and the idea is to actually learn as much as possible. Some of the kit we get for our own med pouches is stuff I haven’t really used, though, so it’ll be important to pay good attention, I have a lot to learn. I’m realizing as I think about the course that while I’ve set up my SORD rig in a way that I think is mostly functional, I have my med pouch in a place that is only accessible from one side – which might actually not be the best idea from the perspective of planning for its use. I think I’m going to move it.

I feel like such a snob going to ranges and so on with non-combat arms types using the SORD. The whole reason people started using this sort of hit is that the tactical vest we normally carry has a couple of significant flaws. The main one has to do with the placement and design of the ammunition pouches. The tac vest has four single magazine pouches that carry 30 round rifle magazines. They sit high on the vest, which makes them awkward to use. Back when it was designed, the idea of carrying five magazines when going out on an operation seemed reasonable. Afghanistan showed that wasn’t enough. Most people wound up carrying at least ten. The position, in addition to being inefficient for rapid reloads, didn’t bear the weight properly.

With a chest rig, you can carry your magazines lower and more accessibly. I have them low and mainly on my left side, because I’m right handed, allowing me to grab them with my left hand, and swing them up rapidly into what we call “the workspace”. It’s ergonomically superior to the awkward motion required with the tactical vest. I have the pouch that will hold my pistol magazines mounted higher, as the workspace for it is different, and I can do everything right in front of my face that way.

I will note that the other major problem with the TV – the “one size fits all” problem that wastes lots of space for those who carry a machine gun as a personal weapon – isn’t really solved by the SORD rig we have been issued, because as yet there’s no pouches suitable for machine gun ammunition. However, other than the force protection folks, people generally aren’t carrying anything but rifles or carbines anyhow during the normal course of business.

So, why do I feel like a snob? Simple. So many of these guys I see have the mag pouches mounted high, and the problem is in fact made worse by the design of the mag pouches, which have a larger foldover flap. This is a smart compromise, because they can be closed relatively easily. I just don’t think they get why they’ve been given the kit they have, and perhaps that the fault of some people who aren’t sharing the knowledge. Normally, even “customizable” kit comes with a pretty strict set of directions about how it will be used. We’re not getting that direction, instead we’re being left to the soldier’s favourite term – “personal preference”. When that preference doesn’t have knowledge to shape it, well, people just go with what they know. I’ve shared mine with some people, but when someone who’s barely handled a rifle in their entire career blows me off, well, what I can I do? I’m not an expert by any means, nor do I have any authority to tell them what to do. Some people just don’t want friendly advice I guess.

There’s a second problem that it seems we (the combat arms types) have to try to break people of. We have had for many years something of an obsession with rifle magazines. We have created a culture so obsessed with retaining those magazines that it leads people to do things in gun fights that are dangerous. Our experts will tell you that when you need to change magazines, you just dump the empty one, get the fresh one loaded, and keep getting rounds downrange. However, we’ve all been taught to make sure that magazine doesn’t get lost, and I don’t really know why. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that they’re prohibited items – to have one other than as a military/law enforcement person at work is illegal. It seems we’re worried that one lost in a training area might wind up in the wrong hands or something. It’s certainly not a cost issue, they’re about $7 each or something like that if you lose one (which I haven’t in a long time).

There is an old, and possibly apocryphal story about a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, in the process of reloading the revolver he was carrying. Someone highlighted that the spent casings from that revolver were found in his pocket – suggesting that during his reload he had fiddled around to get the casings into the pocket because he would have been conditioned to do so on ranges, rather than simply dumping the cases to reload quickly. We’re conditioning people to do the same thing, but it’s getting weeded out I guess. It’s like our need to restructure the way we train people on their service rifles, because combat arms folks rather quickly get told “what you learned on basic is wrong”. Because it is.

What got me thinking about that was a series of events today. This morning I read about a green-on-blue incident involving French soldiers in Kapisa Province, which is near Kabul. Four were killed by an Afghan National Army soldier who was in a unit being mentored by the French Army. That as a headline was awful enough, but then I read the whole story – that 15 French soldiers were wounded in the attack. One lone ANA traitor created 19 casualties. How did that happen? One source explained it: they were unarmed. That I couldn’t believe. The idea of being unarmed at any point there is to me simply ridiculous.

The attack has prompted the French to “reconsider” their role, and suspend operations for now, mainly because of domestic political pressure I’m guessing.

The problem, the concern that I’m developing is that lots of people deploying who perhaps aren’t taking enough opportunity to train on the skills that they hopefully won’t ever need, but should have. I’m going to be surrounded by almost all combat arms types, so we’ll be out honing skills constantly, but I guess I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t do that. I guess it’s just the way that even as a Reservist to think about those skills. There is, also, the fact that I shoot recreationally, and I probably know more about firearms than at least 2/3s of my colleagues. I take the stuff seriously, because it’s my job.

I also was struck by something that happened during the trip to convoy ranges. After drawing our weapons, we were loading up into MSVS trucks to go out to the training area. SOP for us is when you’re loading a vehicle, you unload and clear your weapons. There are of course exceptions, but this wasn’t remotely close to being one. Additionally, when you’re going to a range, weapons handling is particularly important, for reasons I shouldn’t need to explain even to non-soldiers.

So, we’re on the truck. I was last in on the left, and as I tend to, I started looking around. I spotted a loaded rifle in the hands of someone sitting across from me. Incidentally, in our terminology, loaded means that a magazine is mounted on the rifle. Whether it actually contains ammunition or not is not discernable by appearance. There was almost certainly no ammunition present, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still not done. So, I said, “Hey man, what’s with the loaded rifle?” and shot him a bit of a glare.

I didn’t realize he was a Major. But hey, that should have meant he knew better.

His answer? “So, when I catch you doing it, I can use the same tone?”

What tone? I didn’t use a “tone”. I did highlight a significant safety infraction. That’s all.

And you’ll never catch me doing the same thing. Because I’m a pro. And we don’t do stupid things like that.

Or we shouldn’t. I don’t.

It’s not that I have a lack of confidence in our training or my peers. I don’t. I know that they’ll be able to do what they need to do, and that we get some of the best training around. I’ll be interested to get a lot more experience seeing how ours stacks up against our allies while I’m away, but what I’ve seen in limited experience tells me we’re well ahead of most of them.

It’s just that I sometimes wonder if people just brush it off, even when there’s lots of people who’d happily coach them.

Written by Nick

January 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Back In The Swing

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It’s been a busy week thus far – a little chaotic in some cases, because basically everyone getting ready to deploy has different stuff to do – different checks to get in their boxes. It’s been fairly well organized, actually, other than a number of last minute changes to some of the plans that were published initially.

I had a good mix of stuff booked to get done this week – convoy ranges to start off, some interesting training on TTPs for road movements that are going to be a large part of what we’re going to be doing. It wasn’t anything particularly new I learned, but it was good to review and get the latest information on how things will work over there. We did some other training specific to the mission as well. Last night we went into the night doing foreign weapons training (where I got annoyed that I know more about most of them than the “instructors”, including the difference between an RPD and RPK machine gun for example. In any case, foreign weapons training is basically a quick review of how to clear weapons you might likely find over there – Kalashnikov-type weapons being the most common.

Today I started Standard First Aid – something that we’re supposed to do constantly to stay current, but I’ve actually not done the full course in quite a while, so it’s good to get back to review CPR and those sorts of things. That will lead into this weekend, when I’m doing Combat First Aid – which is more specific to the sorts of injuries you might see in a war zone. It’s not as detailed as the Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) course, a ten day intensive course that 25% of the task force should have before we deploy. I wanted to get on that course, but I wasn’t one of the people chosen for it. Instead I’m doing the Unit Ethics Coordinator course next week. That should also be quite interesting, and I’m sure it will generate a lot of good discussion. With several recent stories in the media, we’ll certainly not be short of things to talk about.

I know my departure date now, which is cool. It gives me some ability to organize my life a bit. I was worried I’d be sitting around waiting for weeks to get on the go, and I’ve discovered that for better or worse that’s actually not really good for anyone – it’s just better to get on with things. Being in touch with the people we’re replacing and seeing how things are going there is actually getting us kind of excited about getting on with the job. Also, the chaotic feeling we’re getting as all the last minute stuff gets done is starting to become overwhelming. It’s just time to get done with being here, and get on the way.

Written by Nick

January 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

And We’re Back…

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Back to Gagetown. I arrived back in the area Saturday night with my wife, she came to drop me off to resume workup training, and mainly because we wanted to go for dinner at a particular restaurant in Fredericton that we discovered on arriving no longer exists! Nevertheless we had a nice evening out with an old friend of mine from a course six years ago. She’s out of the military now, but her then-shaggy-haired boyfriend is now her Army Captain husband. We hit a wine bar for a long night of revelry before heading back to our hotel.

I got back to the shacks Sunday afternoon and set about sort of unpacking. I have a fair bit less stuff here now, because I’m trying to more or less live out of my barrack box until it’s time to leave. I’m here until February 3rd, and literally every day is booked with some sort of training activity. Tomorrow I’m off to do convoy ranges at Swan Creek Lake. I got some frostbite watching the demos today, but tomorrow should be a little warmer as I understand it. Wednesday I have… I can’t actually remember, and Thursday I start first aid training, a good refresher. Standard then combat first aid will take me through the weekend, and then we move on to some other stuff. Mostly it’s “classroom” so I shouldn’t be too bothered about things like cold.

We’ve got about an inch of snow on the ground. Kabul apparently got something like a foot over the weekend, though it won’t likely last long.

Today was also my first day wearing my CADPAT(AR) uniform – desert cam. It’s just weird seeing my reflection in it – or people milling around in it. We are also a Sergeant Major’s worst nightmare, because climactic conditions mean we have to make use of all our cold weather gear, which is all green. I don’t think this will make sense to the average civilian, but mixing different uniform components is generally a big no-no that drives those charged with enforcing dress and deportment ballistic. Alas, we carry on.

I got my departure date today (although it’s not 100%, I haven’t seen it on paper), early on in the relief-in-place, which is good. I won’t have a lot of time sitting around between the end of training and when I head off.

In addition to all the training on the schedule I’m still working at learning the language. I got my hands on some better materials and I’m starting to get a grip on the basics of things. It’s tough to learn a language that literally in no way resembles any language I know. I’m starting to wrap my head around things like basic grammar, and very slowly building up a little vocabulary. I have a lot of lessons left though, and I’m hoping that between the different tools I have and the time remaining I’ll have some better skills.

For those of you reading this regularly (or stumbling upon it – that seems to happen from time to time too!), what do you want me to tell you about? I feel like I’m not telling that great a story yet, but I’m not totally sure if there’s better directions. Use the comment feature to tell me what you might want to see.

Written by Nick

January 16, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Holidays

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When I got back to Halifax after being dismissed from Gagetown for the holidays, I immediately set to trying to get my leave schedule as synchronized with my wife’s vacation days as possible. Thursday night when I got home she told me she’d found a last minute five-star all-inclusive trip to Cuba, leaving the following Tuesday.

I immediately started trying to negotiate for some leave schedule that would allow for it, but alas, nothing even after Christmas dinner. Monday, I breezed into the office and almost immediately into a conversation about training going on between Christmas and New Year’s Eve for a recruit course and our Mountain Operations Platoon.

Turned out that they needed more staff for the four days of planned training, and I immediately volunteered, getting a leave pass for the rest of the week and plane tickets to Cuba leaving the following day. We didn’t get the five star steal, but a nice four star, leaving from Toronto so we visited some old friends on the way there and back.

Had a great trip, nice to relax and enjoy some sun,  wander around Old Havana, and not really care about much of anything.

I came back expecting to spend those days between Christmas and New Year working. Specifically, they needed someone to help run rifle ranges, because the other officers who were to be there had other things to do. Not really a hard go. The problem, of course, is that I had left most of my cold weather kit in Gagetown. So I called a friend and asked her if I could borrow… well… everything.  And she hooked me up (and gave my wife a quick lesson on Afghan carpets, and pashminas). Off I went.

The CF all but shuts down over the holidays due to leave. Everything goes to minimum manning. When we arrived we were basically the only people at this camp, the Land Force Atlantic Area Training Centre Detachment at Camp Aldershot. Aldershot is about an hour from Halifax in the Annapolis Valley just outside Kentville, Nova Scotia.

We ordered all the necessary accommodations, meals, etc. All went well on arrival until we realized that the heat in the staff quarters was off. My room the first  night was a balmy 7°C. In the morning, it got more interesting. I was supposed to be running a PWT-3 range. The ammo techs first didn’t show up at their appointed time, then we found out that for whatever reason, there wasn’t enough ammunition to do the shooting that was planned. Some request didn’t get processed properly. Then it was decided to cancel the range altogether. The same day, the recruits were going to the gas hut, and the instructor running it and the Deputy Commanding Officer of my unit showed up. They said, “Well, you may as well go home.” (the subtext was “why did you even come?!”) So I packed up my kit and off I headed home for some nice relaxing days off. It worked out really nicely.

New Years Day I headed down to my parents’ winter home in Yuma, Arizona for a week – I’ve been enjoying myself here, riding around the desert in a dune buggy, visiting Mexico for shrimp tacos (while my mom got her prescriptions refilled), and so on – just enjoying some sun. I also visited the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, a massive sprawling training and research facility. I’ve been playing with the new Kindle Fire I bought, and just relaxing. My folks have been asking what I want them to send me “over there”, so I’ve sort of set up a standing order for things I’m interested in having in care packages.

I’ll be home next week to work at my home unit (which I don’t think will actually be anything!), and then after a week it’s back to Gagetown to bash on with the last stretch of training before we go. After a week of sunny days I’m not looking forward to seeing the snow.

Happy New Year everyone. 2012 is going to be interesting.

Written by Nick

January 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm